For many pet food professionals, one of the best things about working in this industry is the people – individuals who not only are fellow pet lovers with high levels of knowledge, skill and dedication, but who also tend to treat other people warmly and well. Indeed, it’s a chief reason many people enjoy long tenures in the industry, often developing lifelong friendships with others they work with or meet at industry gatherings.
I received a poignant reminder of this human connection a few days ago, when I learned that Tom Willard, Ph.D., died on September 9, after a long illness. As I wrote to his wife and business partner, Trish, in response to her email, Tom was a mentor, advisor, partner and friend to so many people in the pet food industry, including me. He will be deeply missed.
If it was, sadly, Tom’s time to go, it’s perhaps fitting that he died on the first day of this year’s version of Petfood Forum (a virtual event in 2020, for obvious reasons). Back in the early 1970s, Tom advised and consulted with the staff of Petfood Industry to develop an event for the entire international pet food industry, which launched as Petfood Forum in 1973. Over the years since, he spoke at the conference multiple times and continued to advise our team until just a couple of years ago.
In fact, my first meeting and conversation with Tom was about Petfood Forum, and it happened in typical Tom fashion. A couple of years after I started my tenure as editor-in-chief, I attended a small industry conference, and during the opening session, in response to a call for questions and comments, a man sitting right behind me suddenly and forcefully said something like, “If this is going to be addressed, it needs to be by someone with a strong pet food background. I was appalled at the speaker they had at Petfood Forum last year on this.”
I can’t even remember the topic now; but naturally, my ears and attention perked up at the mention of Petfood Forum, especially in that way. My colleague sitting next to me and I exchanged sideways glances, and I managed to sneak a peak back at the name badge of the person who had spoken out: Dr. Tom Willard.
During a reception that evening, my colleague and I searched for Tom and, when we found him, introduced ourselves. I asked him, in follow-up to his earlier comment, what type of speakers he thought we should have at Petfood Forum.
Tom was immediately kind and friendly (and perhaps a bit sheepish). Before answering my question, he explained his role in helping develop the conference from the very beginning, and how he still felt invested in its program each year and its ongoing success. That began an ongoing conversation with Tom that, a few years later, evolved into a return to an advisory role with us. His deep expertise, thoughtful insights and robust support were invaluable to me, and he quickly grew to be a friend.
Whenever I saw Tom at an event, he always greeted me the same way: “Hey kiddo, howya doin’?” From anyone else, I may have found that to be a little condescending, but coming from Tom, it made me smile every time. Perhaps he reminded me a little of my dad, who had died in 2000: Both could occasionally come off as somewhat gruff, but those who knew them knew they were really very warm people who spoke out because they cared.
After I received Trish’s email about Tom’s death, I shared the sad news with a handful of people in the industry I knew would want to receive it. One person, Serge Boutet, an animal nutrition expert with Nutrinnov Consultants, responded with his own thoughts about Tom, including his gratitude that Tom had introduced Serge to me back in 2010 and recommended him as a future speaker.
I trusted Tom and knew he wouldn’t recommend anyone he didn’t believe in, so I extended an invitation to Serge to speak at Petfood Forum the next year, and he has since presented at several of our conferences, including in China. (He will be one of the speakers for our upcoming Petfood Essentials CONNECT•ED online short course.)
“More than this, Dr. Willard (I was never able to say Tom ... always called him Dr. Willard with the highest respect) was my mentor, guiding me deeply when I started on my own as a consultant in 2013 and continuously since then,” Serge wrote. “He helped me set myself straight and strong in the business and I owe him a lot.”
If you knew Tom and have memories or thoughts of your own to share, his family has set up a memorial page where you can add your own tributes.
This time a year ago, another pet food leader died, and I missed the chance to pay tribute to him. Dr. Antonio Teixeira Miranda Neto, known by most as simply Miranda, was a pioneer in developing the Brazilian pet food market, from launching his own pet food company, Total Alimentos, to driving several innovation and safety initiatives for the industry. He and his wife, Diana, graciously hosted me at their factory and kennel several years ago and eventually became friends, too.
Tom and Miranda were among the best of the many good people in the industry. At this time more than any other, we need to keep celebrating those people and expressing our appreciation for having them in our careers and lives.